In spectacular fashion, the latest suicide attacks in Algiers confirm that nothing basic has changed in the political dynamics of Algeria. The immediate horror of apparently 70 or more deaths and 200 wounded in two truck bomb attacks on December 11th was smothered by the “normalization” response of the government and the establishment “political class” in the days which followed.
For nearly two decades, since the end of the brief “democratic” opening of 1989-91 and the Islamist insurgency and state repression which followed, ordinary Algerians have endured waves of terror attacks, while disastrous socio-economic conditions at the grassroots continue to feed violent emotions of those attracted to radical political Islamism.
While Algeria’s military regime seemingly suppressed, for the most part, the AIS (Islamic Salvation Army) and GIA (Armed Islamic Groups) radical Islamist insurgencies in the 1990s “black decade,” it added its own dimension of torture, massacres and kidnapping to the violence of the insurgents. A Rahma law (unilateral pardon) in 1995, an AIS cease-fire in 1997, an eventual “Civil Compact” state amnesty in January 2000 and an expanded “National Reconciliation Pact” in March 2006 all reduced Islamist violence as well by permitting re-entry of most guerrillas into civilian life without penalty and without significant recourse by civilian victims of their actions. Importantly, at the same time, the pact removed all military and police forces from accountability as well—judicially and even in terms of critical public comment—despite their own documented contribution to the civil war of the 1990s, which produced as many 200,000 deaths and thousands of “disappeared.”
According to the standard account of the regime and media, a small remainder of Islamic insurgents, unreconciled to pardons and demobilization, gathered in the GSPC (the Salifist Group for Preaching and Combat) to carry on a reduced-scale rural guerrilla war. The GSPC in late 2006 announced “affiliation” with the bin Laden/Zawahiri network and several months later re-named itself as “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (North Africa) (AQMI). Despite the military’s apparent significant success this year in luring, capturing or killing important leaders of the organization, younger recruits continue to replenish its ranks, as seen in the age of almost all of the suicide-bombers of the past few months.
The Algiers December 11th attacks on a local UN office and the Algerian Constitutional Council/Supreme Court complex, like a similar April attack on the Algiers government center and a September attack on a crowd gathered for a presidential motorcade, had a significant symbolic message. All of them stated, through spectacular destruction and death tolls, the continued presence of AQMI, despite recent months of well-publicized and apparently-successful repression. One of the two December attacks struck an important “Western presence” (the UN office), thereby reviving the image of Algeria as unwelcome to “foreign infidels.” The AQMI’s subsequent web message justified this action “to remind the crusaders, who colonized our country and the spoils of our resources, to listen well to the demands and speeches of Osama bin Laden. . . . [The suicide bombings will continue] as long as our lands are not liberated, the wars that you lead against Islam are not ended and the aid that you bring to the traitors and renegades of our blood continues.”
Shocking as well, the very date chosen commemorates the day in 1960 when a militarily-repressed Muslim population unexpectedly descended en masse from the Algiers Casbah into the French downtown in an uncontrollable demonstration of support for the cause of national independence (an unforgettable climactic scene in the “Battle of Algiers” film).
A wholly alternative and apparently credible interpretation of the attacks came from left critics of the regime with the ten-year old “Algeria Watch” organization, an important public resource (with an ample web site) of detailed and up-to-date information about all aspects of the regime. Among its contributing writers are François Gèze, director of the well-respected leftist “La Découverte” publishing house in Paris, and Salima Mellah, an Algerian journalist and Gèze’s collaborator in various earlier articles. Previously forthright in their analysis of the regime’s own hidden violence and manipulations in the 1990s (“La Découverte” published “The Dirty War,” a personal account of such activities by a former Algerian army officer), Gèze and Mellah contend that the same pattern persists to the present. In their article two months ago for “Algeria Watch,” relying on data from the GSPC web site, news articles and their own analysis, they:
affirm with certainty that if, for nearly ten years, the GSPC welcomes to its ranks young Algerians desperate from the poor social conditions of a disinherited society, its chiefs are essentially agents or peons of the military security service [DRS} responsible for putting into effect a strategy of violence and terror serving the interests of the shadowy decision-makers who stop at nothing to retain power and the riches that it allows them to appropriate for themselves.
From this perspective, they state that earlier GSPC/AQMI bombings in 2007 appear to have signaled the effort of one of the two main ruling military factions or clans centered on DRS chief Mohammed Tewfik Médiène to challenge the power of the other centered around President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The “Tewfik clan,” say the authors, has been aligned with major U.S. military and investment interests and Washington’s preoccupation with supervising the worldwide “war on terror.” The clan of generals allied by convenience around Bouteflika supports the government’s switch, beginning in 2006, from U.S. to French and Russian investment, trade and military supplies, thus also downplaying the potential of the GSPC/AQMI. (Encouraging this change, Russian military intelligence supposedly warned the Algerian government of American intent to monitor Algerian military messages using the sophisticated communication systems recently purchased by the army from the U.S.)
The stakes on each side are greater power and greater wealth through corruption. In this light, the December bombings would be a warning, by the Tewfik clan, of future escalation to come, while their rivals would be interested in playing down local connections with the Al-Qaida international network as well as any real threat from the GSPC itself. Needless to say, while military clan competition is well-recognized as a long-time reality of the regime, this level and type of violent spectacular manipulation is difficult to verify and newspapers within Algeria could not touch it directly and hope to survive.
Standard media opinions are split on whether the recent suicide bombings represent a stronger or weaker organization. Despite government repression over the past year, AQMI has begun to organize again in the poorest neighborhoods of Algiers. It has also become apparently more “purified” ideologically through purges and defections. The overall “emir” (since 2004) is Abdelmalek Droukdel (alias Abu Musab Abdelwadoud), a 35-year old university graduate specializing in explosives and a veteran of the GIA of the 90s. He and his close political advisor Cheik Abdenacer are seemingly strong partisans of the bin Laden/Al-Qaeda model of activism more generally. The emir’s military advisor since July is Ahmed Djebri, a past chemical engineer with the state chemical industry and now bomb expert as well. A sign of apparent strength is that the recent actions were well-orchestrated and well-publicized through a sophisticated web site and potentially gained more publicity and recruiting potential through linkage to the Al-Qaeda label. (Some say that AQMI membership is already back up to about 1000.)
At the same time, some in the media saw the attacks as a sign of weakness, a reduced ability to survive and grow through rural guerrilla activity. Also, internal purges (because of leadership rivalries and disputes over Al-Qaeda affiliation and suicide attacks), as well as diminished funds and supplies now may have forced AQMI to carry out only “high publicity” activities relying on only a few. Just three weeks before the latest attacks, some speculated that AQMI was on the verge of self-destruction since so many top leaders had recently defected (and become informers) or been arrested, thus seriously jeopardizing, to the point of panic, the internal security of the organization itself. In effect, it may be forced now to rely greatly for new recruitment on the international Al-Qaeda image, with references also to Palestinian and Iraqi resistance, precisely to compensate for reduced domestic Algerian support even among those attracted to radical Islamic ideology. (Algerian government sources estimated that about 380 Algerians were in Iraq or at its borders to participate in anti-American resistance at the end of 2004. Many were apparently attracted by images of armed action on the web.) The simultaneous attacks on both national and international symbols in Algeria suggest to the media AQMI’s ambiguity in target priorities and a continuing tension in Al-Qaeda relations with local-based groups generally.
Of course, if the Gèze-Salima interpretation is correct, the “strength,” “ideological line,” and “tactics” of the GSPC are largely functions of the DRS rather than those of autonomous armed radical Islamists supported or not by bin Laden and Zawahiri. While Algerian youth might still be recruited in greater or lesser numbers, they would become pawns of a more complex Orwellian manipulation than most media observers would acknowledge, let alone express.
In any case, as during the 1990s, this latest Islamist spectacular attack will be used by the government to seek further tacit popular support. The vast majority of grassroots Algerians are unsympathetic to violent radical Islamism and are again horrified by the bombings and random victimization of civilians. But they are also by now quite exhausted. While wanting security from such violence, they have little enthusiasm for a regime which leaves virtually no room for grassroots activism—in meaningful political decision-making, demonstrations, independent trade union activity, or other forms of community organizing. Elections for the national assembly last May produced an abstention rate of some 70-85% of voters—a widely-interpreted sign of rejection of the present military/technocratic regime. President Bouteflika, a civilian close to the dominant military leadership since the war of independence, soon faces the end of his second five-year term. Given his continued acceptance as a “civilian face” to the military regime, many Algerian observers expect a constitutional amendment process to be pushed through in the near future to allow Bouteflika to run again for that office in 2009. (Again, symbolically important, the second target of the recent AQMI attacks was the Constitutional Council which must approve such a change.)
Anger at the impossibility of meaningful political expression, at the continued corruption of the regime (especially galling with the huge current windfall of high-priced gas and oil exports), at price inflation for basic goods, and at the continued deterioration of housing and employment (officially at 12% but more likely 40% or higher, especially among younger adults) provides a fertile bed for continued radical Islamist recruitment. All of these conditions, plus anger at GSPC/AQMI’s violence and the regime’s unwillingness or inability to stop it, leave the vast majority in Algeria exhausted and dismally unhopeful for any political, economic or social relief.
Several days ago, when a radio station provided a one-day “open mike” for listeners to respond to the attacks, unanimous denunciations of violence were accompanied by sharp critiques of the government’s failure to finally eradicate the armed radical Islamist network. Especially upsetting was the fact that one of the two December 11th suicide-bombers was a long-time irreconcilable veteran of the insurgent maquis (thus unmoved by the reconciliation pact) and the other a young male convicted of supplying painkiller drugs to the network, then released (because of the pact) from prison in 2006. By this perspective, it is impossible to “reconcile” with armed zealots, especially now that such activists have aligned themselves with the bin Laden/Zawahiri network of spectacular violence. Said an editorial in the Algiers daily Liberté, “This terrorist message is heard. Clearly. Brutally. Have we become deaf in suggesting that terrorism is other than crime? No pardons. No reconciliation. No equivocations. And especially no debate on the social distress which pushes these suicide-bombers to kill us like flys.” At the same time, others see the government’s reliance on the reconciliation policy and its failure to repress militant holdouts as a conscious effort to maintain enough popular fear and insecurity to assure at least passive acquiescence to the regime, despite its overall unpopularity.
For the Algerian regime and its supporters, critics’ claims of objective collaboration with, softness toward or even control and manipulation of violent radical Islamism are denounced as irresponsibly repeating the “Who Killed Who?” accusations in the 90s against undercover military-instigated massacres and kidnappings. But the main public reactions of the government to the present outrage are its usual surface anger, fatalistic aloofness and attempts to minimize the problem. Thus, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem and Minister of Interior Nourredine Yazid Zerhouni officially proclaimed less than half the number of fatalities cited by journalists who researched among hospitals and rescue workers. Belkhadem criticized those who “falsely” exaggerated the figures, though an ex-prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, admitted government falsification of numbers downward for a similar attack several years earlier. While throughout 2007 the government had pronounced that the GSPC/AQMI was almost eliminated, after the recent attacks, the national police chief still assured Algerians that they could now sleep at peace. Zerhouni also suggested that there was little the government could do to protect against easy acts of terrorism, while Belkhadem again stressed the importance of the reconciliation pact and even the potential extension of an amnesty deadline.
Meanwhile, Bouteflika remained silent, as he has after most of the other attacks, thus apparently to demonstrate minimization of the threat and to discourage public second-guessing of his reconciliation policy, the central hallmark of his leadership over the past 8 years. To underline its importance, on one occasion Bouteflika even urged Algerians to avoid “bruising or wounding the sensitivities and dignity of the repentant militants and Islamists.” But, as Ouyahia just pointed out, by the time the peace and reconciliation charter was put into place in 2006, terrorism seemed essentially finished—thus suggesting Bouteflika’s use of this policy more as a cynical symbolic prop for popularizing his regime.
While the government and “political class” tell the public itself to be vigilant in stifling armed radical Islamism, the regime remains intransigent in its ban on meaningful grassroots political participation (or “civil society”) more generally. The government’s brief open doors to pluralistic political activism in the late 80s gained significant public approval. But with volcanic social pressures suddenly set loose, the rise and challenge by a massive tide of political Islamist support overwhelmed the regime and threatened its monopolistic control. The repression of Islamists in the civil war of the 90s returned the regime to its previous exclusivist domination with only an impotent façade of political pluralism, a pattern continued to the present.
A genuine “national truth and reconciliation” pact after the violence of the past fifteen years would have to include victims and their families, their organizations, Algerian human rights groups and a broad spectrum of social and political interests across Algerian society. But as “Algeria Watch” points out, “transitional justice” of this sort has never succeeded in Rwanda, South Africa, Chile, or elsewhere while the state regime responsible for much of the violence remained in power as in Algeria. Additionally, a full “truth and reconciliation” policy would have to involve revelations and justice concerning the exploitation of millions by the corrupt, authoritarian Algerian regime since the 1960s. No one sees that on the near horizon.
David Porter researched the large workers’ self-management experiment in Algeria forty years ago at the same time as the military coup against President Ahmed Ben Bella and the filming there of the « Battle of Algiers. » He is a political science emeritus professor of SUNY/Empire State College and the editor of Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (rev. ed., AK Press, 2006).